For decades, Baltimore County public schools evaluated every child at the end of second grade and channeled the high achievers into gifted-and-talented math and reading classes that moved faster and delved deeper into the course material.
By fifth grade, some gifted-and-talented students were a year ahead in math and reading much more complex novels. By seventh grade, they were taking Algebra I, and by senior year, they could be in a second year of calculus.
Ambitious parents embraced this path, saying it ensured their children could excel and helped them gain entry into more prestigious colleges.
But the school system dismantled the program in elementary grades this past school year, placing advanced children in classes with lower-achieving peers. The formerly "gifted and talented" students still must tackle more difficult coursework, but others can move into the advanced group during the year. Teachers are expected to teach at all levels by breaking students into groups.
Amid a broader debate about "tracking" students by labeling them according to ability, Baltimore County school officials say too many children, particularly minorities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, were relegated to lower-level classwork.
"If you got the golden ticket, you would ride the train from third grade to 12th grade. If you didn't, then chances are you weren't going to step onto it later in your academic career," said Wade Kerns, the school system's coordinator of advanced academics. "We think instruction needs to be more responsive to the needs of children."
But a growing chorus of parents and experts are questioning whether the highest achievers are getting what they deserve and need to flourish. They see this as the latest affront, after complaining that gifted students suffered as schools focused on ensuring that the lowest-achieving students passed standardized tests.
Parents also say school leaders never announced the change, leaving them confused about the new gifted program, now called "advanced academics."
"It is hard for it to be done effectively," said Katie Lehr, who has witnessed the change as a mother of gifted children in elementary, middle and high schools.
Parents and the teachers union contend that educators are already overwhelmed, and now they must juggle multiple groups of students working with different books and curricula in one class. They say class sizes — which have grown to 25 in some elementary grades — are now too large for teachers to handle so many ability levels.
Lehr also contends that the new approach only makes differences among children of varying skill levels more noticeable, potentially harming those deemed not ready for more advanced material. "Children notice the differences. I think it calls more attention to the fact that children are reading in different groups," she said.
While experts say research on gifted education supports Baltimore County's move, the new approach has not been tried in other school districts in the Baltimore region.
In fact, Baltimore City is moving to adopt the gifted-and-talented model embraced by most other districts in the state, and will begin using universal screening to identify gifted students in second grade. Gifted students in the city will get a more advanced curriculum beginning in third grade.
Researchers have long believed that gifted students need to be challenged or they can become frustrated and bored. But while many once believed that a student was either gifted or not, they now say giftedness may be fluid. A student who muddles through elementary school might catch on later and be considered gifted.
So a more flexible academic approach may be warranted, said Jonathan Plucker, a Johns Hopkins University professor affiliated with the Center for Talented Youth. Still, the new model hasn't been widely tested.
"It is kind of a bold move, but it may not work," Plucker said. "It is not the way we have done things for 50 years. ... There is going to be angst."
So far, the change hasn't made a big difference for those it was supposed to help in the county. In the 2012-2013 school year, before the program change, 21.15 percent of black children in the sixth grade were labeled gifted. Last school year, that declined to 19.69 percent. The percentage of Latino gifted students increased slightly.
For economically disadvantaged children, the percentage of sixth-graders labeled gifted declined from 19.41 percent to 18.73 percent.
The new model is the latest in a series of changes to the way the county puts its 110,000 students on "tracks," including gifted and talented.
In the past decade, the county wanted to give more opportunities to elementary students to gain access to advanced classes as they showed promise. So students were allowed to move up at the beginning of each school year, from second to fifth grade.
Now the county says it wants to extend that access further by letting teachers move students in and out of the advanced group six times each year. And now those students aren't in a separate classes but are taught alongside their peers.
Teachers decide how to group students and which are advanced by considering academic achievement. That's a departure from past practice, in which students were evaluated for widely accepted gifted characteristics, including perseverance, creativity, abstract thinking and sensitivity.
Some aspects of the gifted program have remained the same. Advanced math students are still segregated in fourth and fifth grade, after being screened in third grade.
And the gifted program in middle and high school has not been changed. Sixth grade is the first year that students are given a "gifted" determination in their official record.
On a recent morning at Lyons Mill Elementary School, teacher Chelsea Leister leaned back in a big, brown bean-bag chair and taught the day's lesson for the seven or eight advanced students gathered around her on the floor with thick novels in their hands.
She was trying to teach the third-graders to read critically and draw conclusions from hints in the text and drawings. How did they know what lay behind the wall behind which the main character had just disappeared? What was the main character's motivation?
The students were answering her questions as quickly as she could ask them.
Around the room, other students answered questions on worksheets, read quietly from a slim book written on a more basic level, or worked on laptops. One boy struggled to figure out what the word "canine" meant.
Every 10 or 15 minutes, the teacher switched groups, teaching mini lessons at different levels. Every six weeks, these groups can change. If a 10-year-old has a sudden learning spurt and begins to read more fluently, he or she can move into a higher level within the classroom.
Kerns noted that research shows student ability, regardless of skill level, isn't static over a child's academic career. Sometimes a subject or a novel will spur students to work at a higher level, he said.
"The advanced academic model is about responding to the needs of the child as they develop over time," Kerns said.
Jeanne Paynter, a former head of gifted-and-talented education in the Maryland State Department of Education, said relying on teachers' observations is problematic. Teachers who are not trained in how to evaluate giftedness might not recognize children with high aptitude, she said. Some gifted students have behavior problems and can be disruptive in class, or may possess out-of-the-box thinking a teacher might not appreciate.
"Allowing teachers to make all the decisions about who is advanced and who is not is not a good idea," said Paynter, now on the faculty at McDaniel College. "How much can teachers do to differentiate every day for advanced students when most of teachers have not had any training?"
Paynter also said Baltimore County's approach could backfire for economically disadvantaged, black and Latino students in schools with fewer resources. Teachers in struggling schools often have the least experience, she said, and are under tremendous pressure to improve the academic performance of the lowest-achieving students to ensure they pass standardized state tests.
"Generally what happens is the advanced group is going to wait and wait and wait until the teacher gets to them," she said, noting that working independently is not how many gifted students learn. "Every child should have the right to be instructed and grow and learn."
Abby Beytin, president of the county teachers union, said parents have "legitimate concerns" about changes to the gifted programs. She said large class sizes make it difficult for teachers to handle so many groups at so many learning levels.
"Does it become more difficult with heterogeneous grouping? Yes it does," Beytin said.
With only one year of data, Kerns contends that it is too early to draw conclusions on the new program's effectiveness.
"It is fair to say that this flexible academic approach is something that has been recommended for a few years," Plucker said. "It is the way talented kids seem to learn. From that perspective, it is laudable."
But he had "a really important caveat."
"There are lots of things that theory and research tell us should work great and don't," he said. "So when we start something like this, we really have to evaluate the heck out of it. There are always unintended consequences that worry me with things like this."
Some parents praised the new program. Melissa Yoon, whose gifted son skipped second grade, is pleased with the integrated classes with advanced groups. Her son, Brandon, took Algebra I in the last half of fifth grade and passed the state test. Now in sixth grade, he is taking geometry with the eighth-graders.
"The exchange of ideas is what makes you grow. There are a lot of times ... he is amazed by how other students solve that math problem differently," Yoon said.